Will the Biden Administration Provide Leadership to Address Long School Funding Crisis?

Here in Ohio, during the current lame duck session, legislators are considering a new school funding formula. The Cupp-Patterson Fair School Funding Plan has been in the making for almost two years (See here and here.),  but even now as the plan comes to a vote before December 31, the end of the current legislative session, it has been difficult to build a wave of political will for justice for Ohio’s children.

The Ohio Legislature appears split. There is support in the Ohio House for fairer and more generous school funding, but key members of the Ohio Senate want to protect private school voucher programs and delay help for the state’s students in public schools. Even if the Fair School Funding Plan passes, a solution may be illusory.  How will it ever be funded? After a series of state tax cuts early in the current decade and in the midst of a COVID-19 recession, even if the new plan is set in place, making it operational will require a six-year phase in while legislators look for the necessary funds to pay for it.

The mere release of the proposal for the Fair School Funding Plan helped call the public’s attention to the state’s utter failure in recent years to distribute constitutionally mandated state funding fairly across Ohio’s public schools. Eighteen months ago, when the plan was released, we learned that 503 of the state’s 610 school districts had been either capped or on hold-harmless guarantee. These categories mean that despite changes in the number of students they serve or the special needs of their student populations, 503 school districts had, for years in many cases, been receiving the same amount of state funds they got last year and the year before that. Then, because of a shortage of state funds, the biennial state budget for FY 20-21, froze formula state school aid for every one of Ohio’s school districts at the FY 2019 level.

The problem is broader than Ohio, however, and several recent books expose and explain that we’ve just finished a decade of falling financial support for U.S. public schools.

In  2018, professor at Rutgers University and national school finance expert, Bruce Baker published Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students.  Baker examines funding trends in American public education since the Great Recession: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less. It was the ‘new normal,’ Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared. This idea was embraced by pundits like David Brooks and by conservative organizations like the American Enterprise Institute… As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s campaign, it unveiled on its website a series of supporting documents explaining how public school districts can live within that new normal.

Baker continues, explaining that state governments did even more damage: “Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that provided some relief during the recession) ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue. But the rhetoric has persisted, and perhaps even escalated, despite modest but steady economic recovery.  I’ve found that only… (twelve) states had increases in current expenditures (on average) from 2008 to 2015: Washington, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, (and) Alaska.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 4-5)

How did neoliberal Democratic and conservative Republican school “reformers” justify reducing the funding necessary for hiring teachers and guidance counselors? “The response of the education reform community to the narrative that U.S. public schools are inefficient and noncompetitive, a narrative they themselves largely crafted and promoted, has been to propose quick-fix remedies and magic elixirs, which fall more broadly into the category of ‘cost-free solutions.’ The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations…. Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation… (and) that data-driven human capital policies can increase efficiency…. One core element of such reform posits that U.S. schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 6-7)

In their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire devote an important chapter to reviewing the collapse of state school funding in the dozen years since 2008: “Education… represents a mere drop in the federal spending bucket: roughly $60 billion. By comparison, just short of a trillion dollars is spent on social Security. Another trillion is spent on the combined programs of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program… Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation. This has been a logistical challenge, but they have pursued it through networks like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network..” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  p. 34)

Schneider and Berkshire explain the punitive education budget policies in some states after the recession was over: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  pp. 35-36)

Finally in 2018 and 2019, public school teachers themselves challenged and exposed the consequences—in the schools where they were working—of years of tax cutting, fiscal austerity, and privatization. Because of teachers’ strikes and statewide walkouts, it is beginning to look as though we’ve reached a decisive moment when, perhaps, it will be possible to capture national and state education policy back from the ideologues and privatizers.  Striking teachers across the states exposed what had been invisible: staffing shortages that left children stuffed in classes of 40 students and that left children in public schools without an adequate number of counselors, school psychologists, school nurses and librarians.

Schneider and Berkshire describe how the Red4Ed walkouts and strikes by teachers across the states fixed the public’s understanding on appalling conditions across public schools: “The recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity. For those ideologically predisposed against public education, these public revolts represent a profound challenge. Starving the beast, after all, requires that the public be willing to elect politicians to cut taxes, shrink services, and dismantle public institutions.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, p. 43)

Finally, in his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black examines the future of public education at the end of what has been an ideologically and fiscally precarious decade.  Black believes the wave of Red4Ed strikes may presage a new era if the energy of the movement can be sustained: “As the moniker RedforEd suggests, the pro-public education and teacher movement also defies conventional politics. In 2019, 84 percent of public school parents indicated that they would support teachers who went on strike over school funding issues…  The general public beyond those directly connected to schools has also been steadfast in its support for public education and teachers… These numbers and teacher protests scared those levying attacks on public education. They may, in fact, have pressed their advantage too far for too long. Their messaging succeeded for the better part of a decade, but their messaging could not hide underlying reality.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 245-24)

The education plan on which President Elect Joseph Biden campaigned shines a bright light on the funding problems which have quietly undermined American public education. Biden pledged to triple funding for Title I, the program awarding federal compensatory funding to schools serving concentrations of poor children.  He proposed within 10 years to fulfill a decades old Congressional promise to cover 40 percent of special education costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when today Congress is covering approximately 14 percent of the cost. He pledged more wraparound Community Schools, more federal funding for pre-Kindergarten for poor children, and more support for other programs to address child poverty. This is an agenda to help public schools serve their students.

Of course the President alone cannot accomplish a quick turnaround in education funding. State governments are primarily responsible for school finance, and injustice in school funding will remain a problem in many far right states. But if President Biden can secure support from Congress to enact his education plan along with the federal tax increases for wealthy Americans and corporations he has said are needed to pay for it, his leadership will continue to reshape the narrative.  His leadership has the potential to help build the political will for increasing opportunity for all of America’s children and especially for children in our poorest urban and rural communities.

Biden’s first step must be to choose an education secretary who will help us remember our constitutional commitment to strive for equity, opportunity, and justice for all children in America’s public schools.

Adequate and Equitable School Funding: Are These Goals Unreachable in America?

As we begin another school year, here is a review of an unexciting but essential subject: the basics of school finance. While many of our legislatures don’t seem to be dealing with this subject much these days, and in many states there just isn’t enough money because taxes have been slashed, we do need to keep some basic concepts in mind.  Two principles are key: adequacy and equity.

  • Adequate school funding involves two questions: “How much is enough?” and “Are we spending enough?”Adequacy of school funding is part of state budget debates as well as discussions of the school formula.
  • Equitable school funding involves this question: “Are we distributing state—and to a much smaller degree, federal funds—to compensate for local school districts’ very uneven capacity to generate school revenue?  Equitable school funding depends on distribution formulas—the state school finance formulas set up to meet the requirements of the 50 state constitutions, and the much smaller federal Title I formula, which distributes a relatively small amount across all the states.

In a recent report, the Senior Director of State Fiscal Research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Michael Leachman demonstrates that, in the summer of 2018, funding of public schools remains inadequate in a number of states: “Some 47 percent of school funding comes from states.” “Nationally, combined state and local funding for K-12 schools has finally recovered from deep cuts made during the Great Recession, but some states still haven’t restored funding…. At least 12 states have cut ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—by 7 percent or more per student since 2008 before the recession took hold.  Seven of these states have also cut income taxes over the last decade, making it particularly hard for them to raise revenue needed for their schools. (Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma.)”

Leachman continues, examining trends in local school district funding: “Some 45 percent of school funding comes from localities…. Local funding per student fell in 19 states between the 2008 and 2016 school years… after adjusting for inflation.”

Leachman adds a further statistic related to inadequate funding, a fact which ought to be alarming: “The number of school workers—including teachers, librarians, nurses, and other staff—has fallen by about 158,000 since 2008, even as the number of enrolled children has risen by about 1.4 million.”

Recently, for example, it was reported that in cash-poor Arizona’s public schools, the number of school counselors per student has fallen to an alarming level, according to new data from the American School Counselor Association. The Arizona Republic reports: “Arizona worst in nation: Arizona’s student-to-school-counselor ratio is the highest in the nation, averaging 903 students to every one counselor in public schools in the 2015-16 school year…  Arizona held a 743-1 ratio a decade ago, but climbed as high as 941-1 in the post-recession years before slowly improving… The improved ratio—still more than three times the recommended number—has been a sticking point for Arizona’s March for Our Lives student and #RedForEd teacher movements… The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-1…. Only New Hampshire, Wyoming and Vermont had ratios within that range…. Michigan comes closest to Arizona with a 744-1 ratio. The national average is 464-to-1.”

In July, in a brief for the Learning Policy Institute, the Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker confirms that the most important, and incidentally the most expensive, school investments are for teachers, counselors and other school staff who serve children.  Baker focuses on teachers: “Greater overall investment in education typically results in more intensive staffing per pupil and/or more investment in teacher salaries. Investments in more and higher quality teachers are, in turn, related to higher learning outcomes for all children.” “Increased funding tends to lead to reduced class sizes as districts hire more teachers, and to more competitive teacher salaries.  A significant body of research points to the effectiveness of class size reduction for improving student outcomes and reducing gaps among students, especially for younger students and those who have been previously low achieving.  Often studies find that the effects of class size reduction on achievement are greatest when certain smaller class thresholds (such as 15 or 18) are reached, and are most pronounced for students of color and those in schools serving concentrations of students in poverty.”

Federal funding, which comprises only 8 percent of all dollars spent on public education, has fallen over the past decade—a fact that signifies inattention by Congress and recent administrations not only to the need for adequate funding but also to its equitable distribution. Funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, because it is a huge federal mandate, affects the general fund budgets of the nation’s 13,506 public school districts. When IDEA was passed in 1975, Congress promised to cover 40 percent of the cost, but the federal government has never paid more than 19 percent.  The federal government’s other primary role in funding K-12 schools—Title I—is intended to promote equity—to compensate to some degree for the fact that when state and local funding are combined, more money continues to flow to the schools serving children in wealthy communities and not to the nation’s poorest schools.  Always underfunded, Title I has fallen even further behind over the past decade. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Michael Leachman explains: “The largest federal education program, ‘Title I’ funding for high-poverty schools, is 5 percent below its 2008 level after adjusting for inflation.”

In  an earlier brief last February, Bruce Baker describes the plight of the local school districts serving society’s poorest children: “Most states fall below the funding levels necessary for their highest poverty children to achieve the relatively modest goal of national average student outcomes.  High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands dollars short, per pupil….  In several states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels… Only a handful of states—including New Jersey and Massachusetts—are doing substantially better than others in terms of the average level of funding provided across districts in each poverty quintile.”

In an extraordinary book, Final Test, California’s Peter Schrag quotes a deposition from a high school student as part California’s Williams school funding court case. The book was published in 2003, but Alondra Jones’ deposition continues to speak to a society where school funding inequity remains the norm.  A student at San Francisco’s Balboa High School, Jones had recently visited Marin Academy, a better funded school, and she describes the difference:

“You know what, in all honesty, I’m going to break something down to you. It makes you feel less about yourself, you know, like you sitting here in a class where you have to stand up because there’s not enough chairs, and you see rats in the building, the bathrooms is nasty…. Like I said, I visited Marin Academy, and these students, if they want to sit on the floor, that’s because they choose to. And that just makes me feel less about myself because it’s like the state don’t care about public schools…. And I already feel that way because I stay in a group home because of poverty. Why do I have to feel like that when I go to school?” (Final Test, p. 21)

Can Momentum Be Sustained from the Spring’s Prophetic Walkouts by Teachers?

If you think about it differently, it is possible to turn Kurt Weill’s song into a story about school finance instead of love: “It’s a long, long while from May to December November, and the days grow short when you reach September.”

That is the lesson I learned 25 years ago when a friend and I co-chaired our local, November school levy campaign. Ohio law prohibits unvoted tax increases, prevents school districts from benefiting from property appreciation by capping the value of local levies at their dollar amount on the day they are passed, and therefore requires voters to come back on the ballot again and again—through failure after failure—until another levy finally passes. That is the only way for Ohio school districts to raise enough revenue to keep up with inflation.  In May of 1993, our local school levy had failed by 2,000 votes. My friend and I worked all summer and, beginning in September with even more intensity—16 hour days,  pulling out all the stops—to try to ensure success in November.

That November, on the third try, the levy passed by 4,000 votes. My friend and I both consider that levy campaign to be one of our primary lifetime accomplishments. We talk on the phone about it around election day every November. It was harder and more exhausting than any of our paid jobs. What we learned is that public opinion can be turned between May and November, but it happens neither easily nor naturally. It is a matter of changing the narrative frame and bringing massive peer pressure to bear—mobilizing people through thousands of personal phone calls, holding meetings everywhere, and working with others to organize nearly a thousand volunteers walking door to door. We even did our best to use social media in that pre-facebook era. A mass of parents recorded this message on their telephone answering machines: “I’m sorry. We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re so busy working on the school levy.”

My experience in 1993 makes me worry about the staying power of what we learned in this spring of 2018 from desperate and prophetic school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina, teachers who told us that our selfish society has forgotten the needs of our children. Tax dollars in those states are so meager that underpaid teachers are leaving for other states, schools are in session only four days in some places, and classes are packed with 40 children, some of them sitting on the floor or on classroom counter tops.

The wildcat walkouts by teachers ended with the conclusion of this school year, and I worry that the message may fade from now to November. Why? Today, roughly 70 percent of households do not have children in school, and the power of corporate money in politics has affected no other institution more than public education.  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Let’s begin with some signs of hope that, just perhaps, the teachers’ walkouts will have some staying power:

  • Two ballot initiatives supporting public education may appear in November on the ballot in Arizona. You may remember that Arizona has cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent since 2008, more than any other state; spending cuts have diminished teachers’ salaries, left buildings crumbling, and even eliminated free full-day kindergarten in some districts. Adding to these problems, the legislature has rapidly moved education dollars into privatized charters and into an education savings account vouchers program that gives away state dollars in little debit cards which parents who pull their kids out of public schools can use to pay for private services.  One ballot initiative will definitely appear in November to stop the expansion of the state’s education savings account vouchers. But teachers, motivated by their spring walkout, are mounting a second effort, a mobilization to qualify another referendum for the November ballot—a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for teachers’ salaries and public school expenses. Associated Press reporter Melissa Daniels explains: “The Invest in Education Act would increase income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year. Sixty percent of the money raised would go toward teacher pay, with the rest earmarked for maintenance and operations. Supporters must collect more than 150,000 valid signatures by July 5 to get the initiative on the November ballot.”
  • For Education Week, Daarel Burnette II reports: “These funding wars in many states have spilled over into this fall’s midterm elections in which more than two-thirds of state legislative seats and 36 governorships—those positions with the most say over school spending—are up for election. More than 100 teachers have filed to run for state office in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma after they failed to get all they demanded from their strikes and protests.”

There are also reasons not to be too hopeful.  It is evident in Kansas that repairing years of tax cuts and underfunding of public education will be neither quick nor easy. In Kansas an all-Republican legislature has fought hard against the Kansas Supreme Court, which has established a deadline for a remedy in the long-running school funding case of Gannon v. Kansas. In May, the legislature came up with a minimal remedy, and Governor Jeff Colyer signed the final plan, leaving it up to the Court to approve the remedy for years of catastrophic underfunding during former-governor Sam Brownback’s era of tax cuts.  Attorneys for plaintiff school districts followed up early in May, however, to demand that the court shut down the state’s schools unless the legislature comes up with an additional $1.5 billion by June 30.  Later in the month, the Associated Press’s John Hanna reported that on May 22, when the Kansas Supreme Court reviewed the legislature’s new plan: “A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court expressed skepticism… that the Legislature and governor raised public school funding enough in the short term to comply with the state constitution, suggesting they could be wrestling this summer with providing more money and possibly increasing taxes.” A year ago, legislators overcame Brownback’s veto and finally raised taxes, though it wasn’t enough to compensate for years of cuts. The Court will announce its decision by June 30.

And in Oklahoma, strong political pushback has emerged against the minimal concessions made to striking teachers this spring.  Oklahoma law requires three-fourths majorities in both houses of the legislature to pass any kind of tax increase. Under pressure from striking teachers, the legislature passed taxes on tobacco, oil and gas production, and motor fuels, but now far-right, former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn is working with Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! on a petition to block this first tax increase in Oklahoma since 1990. Coburn says teachers do deserve a raise, but it can be paid for by cutting waste in an already meager state budget: “Coburn said ‘ineffective and lazy state government’ is to blame for Oklahoma’s woes. He singled out what might be described as a $30 million shell game at the state Health Department as an example of poor management and oversight… Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! has until July 18 together about 42,000 valid signatures on its petition, after which repeal of HB1010xx (the recently passed tax increases) would go to a vote of the people.”

What teachers taught us in the most personal way all spring continues to be confirmed by experts. And the crisis permeates many states beyond this spring’s walkouts.  In a brief for the Education Law Center, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker reminds us:

  • “Most states fall below the funding levels necessary for their highest poverty children to achieve the relatively modest goal of national average student outcomes.
  • “High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands of dollars short per pupil, of funding required to reach average student outcomes.
  • “In several states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.
  • “In numerous states, only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to achieve national average outcomes (but many low-poverty districts still do not have sufficient funding).
  • “Only a handful of states—including New Jersey and Massachusetts—are doing substantially better than others in terms of the average level of funding provided across districts….”

Baker also cautions us to consider a basic principle largely ignored by state legislative bodies who continue enacting regressive tax policy: “It costs more to achieve common outcomes in higher-poverty than in lower-poverty settings; in addition, costs associated with poverty rise as population density rises.”

I hope the school teachers who led the way this spring and the rest of us can manage to sustain the hope and momentum inspired by teachers’ recent wildcat walkouts. Teachers reminded us of the truth of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s words: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

“Public Schools Flush with Cash” — Trump’s Assessment Is Tragically Inaccurate

It is state budget season, a time fraught with accusations and distortions and even alternative facts, but one thing is very clear. When President Donald Trump declared in his Inaugural Address that public schools are “flush with cash,” he was either ignorant about some very basic realities or he was hinting about some sort of scorched earth federal policy—or both.

The President’s own federal budget proposal is due within weeks, and Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities worries about what he thinks are likely to be large cuts to domestic discretionary spending: “Many of the cuts in the Trump team’s blueprint come from plans that the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee (RSC) issued last year, according to The Hill. The Heritage report called for more than $8.5 trillion in non-defense cuts… while the RSC report called for almost $7.5 trillion in such cuts. Moreover, the ‘Penny Plan’ that President Trump proposed during his campaign would slash non-defense discretionary funding by 2026 to an amount 37 percent below the 2010 level, adjusted for inflation, and nearly 40 percent below its lowest level under Ronald Reagan, when measured as a share of the economy. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s nominee for OMB director, supports the Penny Plan.”

What are the realities across the state governments, where about 40 percent of school funding comes from? Despite the distortions induced by state budget politics, it is pretty clear that public schools are in trouble in many places.

Take Chicago, where, the Chicago Tribune reports: “Through legislation in Springfield, (Mayor Rahm) Emanuel’s administration had struck a tentative deal for the state to send CPS (Chicago Public Schools) an additional $215 million for teacher pensions, but that fell through when (Governor Bruce) Rauner vetoed the plan… Because of Rauner’s veto, according to the district, CPS is in the midst of instituting midyear cuts for the second year in a row. The district has put in place four furlough days, a $46 million school spending freeze, $18 million in potential cuts to independently operated (charter) schools and the elimination of $5 million in training programs to make up for roughly half of the unrealized assumption that state lawmakers would send $215 million to the district’s annual budget.”  The four unpaid furlough days for teachers, according to the district, will save $35 million, and the cuts to school discretionary funds will affect textbook purchases, after-school programs, field trips, and the number of hourly staff. The District cannot borrow because its credit rating has fallen to junk status. For all these reasons, on Tuesday, the Chicago Public Schools sued the state of Illinois, “accusing the state of employing ‘separate and unequal systems of funding for public education in Illinois.’ Chicago Public Schools officials describe the legal move as the ‘last stand’ for a cash strapped district that’s ‘on the brink.'”

Meanwhile in Ohio, the Akron Beacon Journal just editorialized that despite a years’ long legal battle in which the Ohio Supreme Court found the school funding system unconstitutional—saying the state was merely determining school funding by cutting up the state budget pie and giving schools what was left over without making an attempt to cost out what good schools really need—Ohio continues its practice of “residual budgeting” for schools: “Residual budgeting. The governor reinforced the concept when he joked at a recent award ceremony for innovators in education: ‘I’d like to give you money, but all I can give you are plaques.’  He has stressed how tight the budget must be, school funding under his (2017-2018 budget) plan increasing just 1 percent, or short of the inflation rate. This increase isn’t the result of calculating the amount necessary to ensure that students receive an adequate education. It reflects, essentially, the money left over. This residual budgeting stems, in no small way, from the relentless tax-cutting of the governor and his fellow Republican lawmakers (during) the past decade. The state today generates $3 billion less in annual revenue. Imagine a share of that sum applied to needy school districts… (S)tate funding, in real dollars (is) still below the level in 2010.”

And in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is trying to repeal the New York Foundation Aid Formula, created ten years ago by New York’s legislature after the state’s school funding was declared unconstitutional. In a scathing commentary, David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, accuses Cuomo of calling for a return to residual budgeting and massive inequality: “In his proposed 2017-18 budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo is calling for repeal of New York’s Foundation Aid Formula, the 2007 law responding to the landmark case, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State (CFE)… In the wake of CFE, the Legislature enacted the Formula to move the state from funding schools based on available dollars and raw politics to year-to-year determinations based on student and school need. The Formula also allocated school aid based on district fiscal capacity to raise local revenue from property taxes. To accomplish this objective, the Formula provided for a four-year phase-in of increases in state aid, or $5.5 billion statewide, the vast majority targeted to the poorest urban and rural districts. In 2009, the state froze and then subsequently cut Formula aid.  Since taking office, Governor Cuomo has staunchly resisted increasing aid to move districts towards full Formula funding. The Formula remains underfunded by over $4 billion… The Governor’s announcement that he wants to eliminate the Formula is a stunning reversal of his 2010 campaign position when he made clear the state’s responsibility for full Formula funding.”

Then there is the fiscal disaster that is Kansas, where the courts have found school funding unconstitutional but there is no realistic remedy in sight. The legislature is divided about how to address a years’ long budget crisis stemming from big cuts to personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013.  The Associated Press’s John Hanna reported last week: “Top Republican legislators in Kansas on Tuesday cooked up an unappetizing budget-balancing stew of personal income tax increases and education spending cuts, defying GOP Gov. Sam Brownback on taxes and past court rulings on education funding.”  One state senate committee has proposed boosting income taxes while another suggests reducing state education aid by $279 per student. Hanna reports: “Kansas faces a projected shortfall of about $320 million in its current budget that must be closed before July 1 and total gaps of nearly $1.1 billion through June 2019.” Governor Brownback continues to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the 2012-2013 personal income tax cuts will grow the economy.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues to warn: “Public investment in K-12 schools—crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity—has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade. Worse, most of the deepest-cutting states have also cut income tax rates, weakening their main revenue source for supporting schools. At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008.”

“Flush with cash” is not the phrase I’d use to characterize this situation.

Nearly Half the States Persist in Starving Public Education

It is October, when the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updates its report on overall school spending across the states. In this year’s version, released last week, CBPP presents new numbers (in inflation-adjusted dollars) depicting general fund, school-formula funding lagging in 23 states behind what those states were spending in the 2007-2008 school year, just prior to the Great Recession.  This is a slight improvement; last year school funding formulas remained below 2008 levels in 25 states. But in a country that relentlessly declares that no child will be left behind and every student will succeed, our rhetoric rings hollow when nearly half the states have reduced basic aid for schools over the past decade.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities sums up the state fiscal picture: “States cut K-12 funding—and a range of other areas, including higher education, health care, and human services—as a result of the 2007-2009 recession, which sharply reduced state revenue.  Emergency fiscal aid from the federal government prevented even deeper cuts but ran out before the economy recovered, and states chose to address their budget shortfalls disproportionately through spending cuts rather than a more balanced mix of service cuts and revenue increases.  Some state have worsened their revenue shortfalls by cutting taxes… And because property values fell sharply after the recession hit, it’s been particularly difficult for local school districts to raise significant additional revenue through local property taxes….”

On average, according to the new report, states provide 47 percent of funding for public schools while local school districts cover 45 percent of the cost. The federal government averages less than 10 percent. Because federal funds pay for services for children whose needs are greatest, cuts in federal funding undermine schools serving the poorest students and shift costs for special needs programming to local school districts’ general funds when federal dollars do not pay for federally required special education programs. According to CBPP, between 2010 and 2016, the federal government reduced the Title I program by 8.3 percent; federal funding for programs under the Individuals with Disability Education Act fell by 6.4 percent (both adjusted for inflation).

CBPP adds: “Most states raised per-pupil general formula funding in the last year, but in most cases those increases weren’t enough to offset earlier cuts.  Twenty-eight states raised general funding per student in 2016.”  But, “At least 19 states cut per-student funding…. In 12 of these states, the cuts came on top of previous cuts, leaving the state even further below pre-recession levels.”  The school funding formula in seven states, Oklahoma, Alabama, Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona, Utah, and Wisconsin is more than 10 percent less than the state was spending in 2008.

Five of the states that cut school formula funding over the decade have also cut state income taxes: Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. This blog has covered education funding problems in two of these  states. Oklahoma stands out; its per-pupil formula funding is down 26.9 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from what the state was spending in 2008.  In the upcoming election, Oklahoma voters will decide on a measure to impose a one-percent sales tax to support the state’s schools. Kansas, where the courts have intervened with a major school funding case, is trapped in a state budget morass following  massive income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 by Governor Sam Brownback and a Republican legislature.  There have been reports of a possible revolt by voters in November to reduce Republican super-majorities in both houses of the Kansas legislature.

The annual reports of the Center on Budget and Priorities bring the same news year after year—that states persist in cutting taxes and under-funding their public schools while we argue about standardized testing and accept the rhetoric that we must merely focus on holding the schools accountable or privatizing them. Just over a decade ago, John Dietz, a judge in Texas, took a moment of personal privilege as he announced a school funding decision: “(E)ducation costs money, but ignorance costs more money,” he said. “The key to changing our future is to close the gap in academic achievement between the haves and the have-nots…  But the rub is that it costs money…. It doesn’t come free… Our willingness to make the sacrifice depends upon our vision and our leadership… (I)t is the people of Texas who must set the standards, make the sacrifice, and give direction to their leaders… These problems only get more difficult the longer we wait.”

School Funding, Residual Budgeting, and Kansas

If you live in Ohio, and if you were paying attention during the 1990s, the decade of decisions and appeals of the DeRolph school funding case, you understand the concept of residual budgeting.  School funding in Ohio, the plaintiff’s attorneys explained again and again, is a mere budgetary residual. The legislators calculate the pot of tax money available this year; then they look at what they spent on education last year; then they divide available revenue  up across all the functions of government including education—usually making sure they don’t spend too much less on education than last year unless there is a budgetary emergency.  Any year’s state budget allocation doesn’t necessarily reflect what services are really needed, nor does it demonstrate an investigation of what different programs cost. In fact, because last year’s funding is usually the baseline, and because last year’s funding was likely way too low, the school funding formula is likely over time to become way out of kilter relative to the rising cost of services.  Although legislators may allocate something extra to support school districts serving a lot of children in poverty, nobody ever really measures what it would take to make our poorest rural and urban schools operate as schools do in wealthy communities.

At the federal level, the most visible case of residual budgeting is for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  When Congress passed the IDEA in 1975, Congress said the federal government would pay 40 percent of the costs, but in 2014, Congress paid for only 16 percent. Local school districts are simply expected to pick up the expenses of what is known to be a huge unfunded mandate.  Similarly, Title I was created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to assist schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty, but Title I has never been funded at a level to support the education of all the children who qualify. Neither has it sufficiently compensated for school funding inequity across the states.

In the 1990s, the problem of residual budgeting at the federal level was compounded by outcomes-based demands for accountability.  David Cohen and Susan Moffitt, in their book The Ordeal of Equality, describe how the 1994 and 2001 reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act failed.  These two reauthorizations incorporated an outcomes-based strategy, “profoundly at odds with the unequal conditions of education in the United States.  Neither policy was paired with policies that supported improved employment, better health care, and early education, nor did either make a substantial effort to reduce unequal educational resources among schools within districts, among districts within states, or among states. The two bills addressed public education as though schools could dramatically change their operations quite in isolation from the political, social, and economic sources of educational problems.” (The Ordeal of Equality, p. 191)

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the recent, 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, represents the same sort of denial. In the new law, Congress failed to expand Title I, despite that its own 2013, Equity and Excellence Commission had concluded: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today. Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

There have been efforts by school finance experts and advocates to get Congress and  legislative bodies across the states to measure equity according to the actual cost of services. The plaintiffs in Ohio’s DeRolph school funding case called expert witnesses who defined a Basket of Essential Learning Resources for the 21st Century (scroll down the left side in the link to find the document). Experts call this an “inputs” approach and urge states to conduct “costing-out studies” to identify what schools must pay for the services they are expected to provide.  Legislators, on the other hand, have preferred an “outcomes” approach that instead measures test scores “produced” by school districts; they have liked to pretend there is no real connection between inputs and outcomes.  The reality, of course, is that because neither the federal government nor most of the states are willing to generate enough tax dollars to cover what would be the real costs, everybody seems to prefer the denial afforded by residual budgeting.  If a formula sends more state dollars to very poor school districts, surely that will improve the test scores, even if that amount can be proven to be inadequate.

This year’s poster child for residual budgeting and a school funding system way out of whack is Kansas, the victim of Governor Sam Brownback’s efforts to reduce the size of the state’s government through tax slashing. We are reminded by a 2014 piece in the NY Times that,  “Kansas’ current constitutional crisis has its genesis in a series of cuts to school funding that began in 2009. The cuts were accelerated by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.”  The newest report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: “Another state that has imposed deep funding cuts—Kansas—eliminated its funding formula this year (2015), making impossible direct comparisons to earlier years.  Formula funding in Kansas was down 14.6 percent per student between 2008 and 2014, after adjusting for inflation.”

Last week the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas, and found the state’s current funding system unconstitutional.  According to the Education Law Center: “In its decision, the Court explained that Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution requires the legislature to ‘make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state…’ Article 6 contains both adequacy and equity requirements.  It necessitates that the legislature provide enough funds to ensure public school students receive a constitutionally adequate education and that the funds’ distribution does not result in unreasonable wealth-based disparities among districts.”  The Education Law Center continues: “The Court had found an earlier funding system inequitable, and the legislature revised the system and brought it into compliance with the Constitution during its 2014 session.  However, in its 2015 session the legislature reversed itself, and the Gannon plaintiffs returned to the Kansas courts, arguing that the funding system had become unfair (inequitable) and therefore unconstitutional again.”  This time the Kansas Supreme Court says it will shut down the state’s schools if the legislature and governor neglect to find enough money by June 30 to fund schools adequately and to address inequity.

The NY Times reports, “The decision is the latest blow to Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and the state Legislature, which will probably have to find tens of millions of dollars in its budget for additional education funding. Kansas is already facing deep fiscal woes in the wake of Mr. Brownback’s decision to cut taxes, which he predicted would help bolster the state economy.  Revenue has fallen short of projections and he and lawmakers are scrambling to fill a roughly $200 million gap before the close of the session.”  As Kansas has discovered, when the size of the state budget pie becomes very small, residual budgeting—making all the pieces of the pie smaller without considering the real price of the services that need to be provided—reduces the state’s allocation for education far below the actual cost of essential programs for children.

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford University professor and education researcher, “wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (The Flat World and Education, p. 164)

Pennsylvania School Funding War Drags On

Pennsylvania doesn’t yet have a state budget, something the state is required to have in place on June 30. A protracted, years-long, and politically contentious fight about inadequate and grossly inequitably distributed school funding is a primary reason for the impasse.

A Republican-dominated state legislature has refused to compromise with the new Democratic governor on a plan that would fund the government and restore desperately needed money for the public schools.  Former governor, Tom Corbett, who ripped more than a billion dollars out of the state budget for public schools, was soundly defeated last November.  But Governor Tom Wolf has not been able to move Corbett’s allies in the legislature to do the right thing for Pennsylvania’s children.  Wolf defeated Corbett last November in large part due to a statewide school funding crisis created by Corbett’s tax cuts.  Corbett and the legislature had pretended to help the School District of Philadelphia—already devastated by school closures and staff layoffs—to survive by passing enabling legislation to permit Philadelphia to enact a cigarette tax on its own residents, a local sin tax dedicated for the public schools.

Last Thursday the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer supported Governor Tom Wolf’s pledge to veto a stopgap, temporary budget presented to him by the legislature on September 18: “Republican legislators have put their old, irresponsible fiscal plan in a new wrapper and called it a stopgap budget.  While their plan promises to fund the state until November, it also threatens to delay sincere negotiations, allowing the state’s elected officials—already nearly three months late—to go that much longer without performing one of their most basic duties: passing a budget.  The Democratic governor has already rightly rejected the legislature’s proposal, which would perpetuate Harrisburg’s habit of leaving bills unpaid, relying on one-time gimmicks, and raiding dedicated funds.  Nor would it adequately fund schools or force the shale-gas industry to shoulder its share of the tax burden at long last.”

Then there is the lawsuit filed by plaintiffs across Pennsylvania that the state’s school funding system fails to meet the “thorough and efficient” and equal protection clauses in Pennsylvania’s constitution—the same language to protect adequate and equitably distributed funding that appears in many state constitutions.  The lawsuit, William Penn School District v. State was filed in November of 2014.  The state has requested that the case be dismissed based on precedents when similar school funding lawsuits were previously brought in Pennsylvania.  While a lower court did dismiss the William Penn School District case, plaintiffs and advocates who filed an amicus brief on their behalf last week, simply ask that plaintiffs be granted the right to present their case and evidence to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear an appeal of the case early in 2016.

Derek Black explains the history of the case at the Law Professors Blog Network: “Last fall, plaintiffs filed suit against Pennsylvania, arguing that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution and that the state has violated that right by repeatedly failing to ensure adequate education resources.  That claim moved through the trial court quickly and is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has yet to fully entertain these issues, having dismissed school funding cases in the past as non-justiciable. Something tells me that this time might be different. As discussed several times on this blog over the past few years, the state has been so derelict in its obligations to its students that its action could be declared unconstitutional under any minimal and deferential standard one might imagine.”

The amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs was filed last week by the national Education Law Center and a number of organizations in Pennsylvania that include Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, Education Voters of Pennsylvania, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and Yinzercation.

David Sciarra, Executive Director of the national Education Law Center commented: “Pennsylvania school funding is among the most unfair in the nation, shortchanging opportunity for public school children across the state.  The current protracted standoff over the state budget makes it even more imperative to give these school children their day in court.”

This blog has covered Pennsylvania’s school funding morass on a number of occasions.  For example, see here and here.

Reading, Pennsylvania: A Microcosm of Today’s Savage Inequalities

NEA Today has just published a short, eloquent, and very profound article on an old, old subject.  In 1991, Jonathan Kozol called this problem “savage inequalities.”

The subject of Amanda Litvinof’s piece in NEA Today is Reading, Pennsylvania, once an industrial community an hour and a half west of Philadelphia:  “Reading is one of the nation’s poorest cities. It’s also one of the most poorly funded school districts in America.  Like students in disadvantaged communities across the nation—who are disproportionately students of color—kids in Reading suffer from a school finance policy that does not come close to providing them with education resources on par with those of their wealthier peers.  Tour Reading’s 19 schools and you’ll see mostly aging buildings with broken floor tiles, leaky ceilings, sprouting patches of mold, students crammed into too-small classrooms and feral cats squatting under classroom trailers.  One high school has a room full of broken microscopes, and no money to repair them.  One large-group instruction room is completely off limits after a broken pipe left it spattered with sewage.  The drama teacher now conducts class in the hallway.  But even more detrimental is what you don’t see.  Reading School District lost 200 educators, including 120 education support professionals in 2011-2012 when statewide education funding plummeted by $1.1 billion under then-Gov. Tom Corbett.  Incredibly, the cuts were four times greater in Pennsylvania’s 50 poorest districts ($532 per student) than in the state’s wealthiest districts ($113 per student).  In practical terms, those cuts left Riverside Elementary’s Ms. Sherman with a class of more than 30 kindergartners and no aid.”

Litvinof interviews Sherman: “One of my close friends went to a wealthier district after working in Reading for 10 years.  At the same step on the pay scale she was earning $16,000 more per year and had a kindergarten class of 18 with an aide, while I had a class of 30 kindergartners all on my own.  It’s a big difference.”  Litvinof takes the trouble to be sure there are no misconceptions here about leveling down: “Let’s be clear: The kids in Wyomissing should have smaller class sizes, challenging academics, and extra curriculars like sports, band and orchestra.  They should have access to a nurse and a counselor and all the academic supports they need.  But students in Reading should have those things, too.”

Describing an interview with Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University and manager of the blog School Finance 101, Litvinof writes: “We know the strategies that help close achievement gaps: Lower class sizes. A broad curriculum. Attraction and retention of highly qualified teachers. But these strategies are unobtainable without stable, adequate, and equitable funding.”  According to Baker, “Reading is a classic case of savage inequality.  It’s a school district that is incredibly poor in terms of its own tax base, it has high-needs students, and it exists in a state that appears not to give a [expletive].” “The data show that we’ve never provided sustained, adequate, and equitable funding in any of our disadvantaged communities.”

There is really no disagreement among experts on the subject of the need for adequate and equitably distributed state funding of public schools.  A long shelf of books documents the problem.  What follow are just a handful of examples:

From Jonathan Kozol in Savage Inequalities (1991): “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor.  It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  ‘Americans,’ he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’ It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (p 83)

From the National Research Council in Making Money Matter, edited by Helen Ladd (1999): “That middle-and upper-income households can move out of high-taxation areas makes it possible for them to avoid sharing the burden of financing the local share of education for those left behind.  In particular, as households and firms have moved out of central cities in search of lower land prices in the suburbs or more favorable business conditions in other states or countries, they have often left behind them smaller tax bases and concentrations of economically disadvantaged and difficult-to-educate students.  The result is widening disparities among the capacities of school districts to generate local funds to meet the educational needs of their students…. While assistance from the federal and state governments helps to offset these disparities, large differences remain, both within and across states.” (p 20)

From Peter Schrag in Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America’s Schools (2003): Schrag quotes Alondra Jones, a student from San Francisco’s Balboa High School in her deposition filed in California’s Williams case: “It makes you feel less about yourself, you know, like you sitting here in a class where you have to stand up because there’s not enough chairs, and you see rats in the buildings, the bathrooms is nasty…. Like I said, I visited Marin Academy, and these students, if they want to sit on the floor that’s because they choose to.  And that just makes me feel less about myself because it’s like the state don’t care about public schools…. It really makes me feel bad about myself.” (p 21)

From James E. Ryan in Five Miles Away, A World Apart (2010): “(I)t is worth noticing that those who embrace adequacy as a goal have essentially abandoned any attempt to link the financial fates of poor and rich districts.  Adequacy presupposes that some districts will be able to provide an education that is more than adequate.  Thus, instead of seeking to ensure that all districts have access to the same pool of resources, which was the goal of fiscal neutrality, those in favor of adequacy accept the inevitable inequalities that will follow.  Indeed, some seek to make a virtue of necessity by arguing that adequacy is superior to equity precisely because it is less threatening to property-rich districts.  In the words of one commentator, adequacy is less costly ‘for the elites who derive the greatest benefits from the existing inequalities, because adequacy does not threaten their ability to retain a superior position.'” (p. 176)

From Linda Darling-Hammond in The Flat World and Education (2010) : “The onus of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is on individual schools to raise test scores.  However, the law does not address the profound educational inequalities that plague our nation.  Despite a 3 to 1 ratio between high-and low-spending schools in most states, multiplied further by inequalities across states, neither NCLB nor other federal education policies require that states demonstrate progress toward adequate funding or equitable opportunities to learn… To survive and prosper, our society must finally renounce its obstinate commitment to educational inequality and embrace full and ambitious opportunities to learn for all of our children.” (p. 309)

Earlier this summer, as the Education Law Center released its fourth annual report on the challenges to school funding equity across the states, its press release declared: “The picture is bleak: the vast majority of states are not funding public schools adequately or equitably; the fiscal retrenching connected with the Great Recession has not been reversed; and at-risk students are not being provided with the resources they need to succeed.”

Amanda Litvinov succinctly summarizes our long, long problem in her piece on Reading, Pennsylvania: “Most lawmakers agree that low-income students, like all children, deserve a great public school—until its time to pay for it.”

We like to think of this as a thorny fiscal problem, but in reality it is a much deeper matter of public morality.  Here are the words—timely today but written over a quarter of a century ago—by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the prophetic pastor of New York’s Riverside Church: “We comfort ourselves with the thought that because our intentions are good (nobody gets up in the morning and says, ‘Whom can I oppress today?’), we do not have to examine the consequences of our actions.  As a matter of fact, many of us are even eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it. And there’s the great pitfall of charity. Handouts to needy individuals are genuine, necessary responses to injustice, but they do not necessarily face the reason for the injustice.  And that is why President Reagan and so many business leaders today are promoting charity: it is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality.” (Credo, p. 64)

PA Permits Cigarette Tax, But Crisis in Philly Schools Drags On

After months of legislative dithering, both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature finally passed and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law enabling legislation for the School District of Philadelphia to levy a sin tax on its residents to raise money for the public schools.  The school district can levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to try to make up at least a bit for what the state has cut in recent years.  Of course, because car owners can drive to the suburbs or Delaware to purchase cigarettes, the poorest of the poor who do not own automobiles will pay the tax, which may not even come close to raising the revenue needed to run the school district.

In a scathing and prophetic September 29th editorial, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook commented on all this: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing.” The Notebook blames the state for a wave of devastating cuts to education that has washed across many school districts in addition to Philadelphia: “More than one-fourth of districts were expected to cut extracurricular activities this year….  Allentown’s school district axed more than 60 teaching positions—on top of more than 400 cut in the three prior years…  A district near Scranton announced it can no longer afford music instruction….  Something is seriously wrong with this picture.  Pennsylvania is not a poor state and is situated in one of the richest countries in the world.  But many districts can’t provide our children with school personnel we once took for granted.”

The reasons are complex.  Corbett and the legislature have cut state funding—a reduction of $1,300-per-pupil to Philadelphia in 2011 alone.  The state dismantled its school funding distribution formula. “Harrisburg has been committed to preserving corporate tax breaks…” and “Corbett and the legislature have also diverted millions of public dollars to private schools through tax credits and maintained a sweetheart deal for funding cyber charters, many of which are run for profit.”  Like other states Pennsylvania relies on local property taxes to fund schools: “So even within the same county there are often obscene inequities in resources—Radnor Township raises $9,000 more per pupil than nearby Upper Darby.”

Amplifying the history behind such an editorial, this week The Nation magazine has published a fascinating and detailed history of the ongoing crisis in the School District of Philadelphia. Daniel Denvir has, for several years now, covered the Philadelphia schools for the Philadelphia City Paper.  His new piece in The Nation is: How to Destroy a Public-School System, part of an October 13 special issue of the magazine on public education.

Denvir begins with the story of parents organizing last spring to prevent the charter school takeover of their neighborhood Steel Elementary School by the no-excuses Mastery Charter Schools.  After Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Concerned Neighbors of Nicetown organized to block the charter takeover, the parents at Steel eventually voted 121-55 to keep Steel a public school—and the parents’ vote was narrowly accepted by those running the district.  The organizing effort was, according to Denvir, “among the few successful coordinated efforts by parents and teachers to block charter expansion in Philadelphia.  They constituted a pivotal moment in a struggle involving Corbett, well-funded education reformers bent on privatizing public schools, a battered teachers union, and students and parents attempting to navigate a school system in which fiscal crisis has become the only constant.”

Denvir traces the crisis back to the 1950s, when the mayor, Richardson Dilworth said Philadelphia was being “choked by the ‘white noose’ of the suburbs.”  Denvir remembers school superintendent David Hornbeck’s filing of a civil rights lawsuit in 1998 that alleged “state funding discriminated against nonwhite students.”   The legislature responded in 2001 with a state takeover of the district, barred the teachers union in Philadelphia from striking, and turned the district over to Edison Schools, a private educational management company—an experiment Denvir reports was recognized as a failure by 2007.  Then in 2010 came Governor Corbett, “his political network heavily populated by advocates for private-sector education reform… Corbett cut about $860 million from public education in his first budget…. He also expanded Pennsylvania’s ‘voucher lite’ programs, popular among conservatives, which provide corporations with major tax credits in exchange for donations for private-school tuition.”  Corbett cut more in subsequent budgets, telling legislators, “I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession.” Funding from the William Penn Foundation brought in the Boston Consulting Group to issue a report that “called for closing sixty-four schools, gutting the central office staff, privatizing blue-collar jobs… and carving up the remaining schools into ‘achievement networks’ potentially managed by private third parties.”  Eventually in the spring of 2013, the number of schools closed was reduced to twenty-four—still a significant loss of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of charters has continued.

Denvir brings his history to last school year: “In 2013-14, the School District of Philadelphia had 6,321 fewer staff than it did at the end of 2011, according to district figures—a decrease of nearly 27 percent.  The reduction included 2,723 fewer teachers, fifty-eight nurses, 406 counselors, 286 secretaries and 411 noon-time aides.  The year began with a single counselor assigned to nearly 3,000 students…”    In the summer of 2014, the crisis continued: “In June, Philadelphia’s schools confronted yet another budget crisis.  In response, Corbett and Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader in the State House of Representatives, demanded that the city’s legislative delegation vote to weaken public-employee pensions.  The prize in return?  Simply allowing the city to raise raise its cigarette tax in order to boost school funding.”

We have come full circle to the diagnosis offered this week by the editors of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing… Something is seriously wrong with this picture.”

Washington State Supreme Court Holds Legislature In Contempt Over School Funding

Too frequently, even after a state supreme court finds the state’s school funding system unconstitutional, nothing much happens.  My state Ohio is the extreme example.  Three times the supreme court found Ohio’s school finance unconstitutional.  Then a fourth time the court spoke, reiterating that the system is unconstitutional but releasing jurisdiction in the case.  This meant the legislature no longer had an obligation to design a remedy.  Although the court found for the plaintiffs, nothing happened and nothing ever will.

Washington  state’s supreme court is taking a very different path.  In January of 2012 in what is known as the McCleary case, the state’s supreme court ruled in favor of the parent plaintiffs, and in the words of Joseph O’Sullivan of the Seattle Times, “ordered the state to increase education spending enough to fulfill the Washington state Legislature’s own definition of what it would take to meet the state constitution’s requirement of providing a basic education to all Washington children.”

Last week, on September 11, 2014, Washington’s supreme court spoke again to scold the legislature for dragging its feet.  In the original 2012 McCleary decision, the court gave Washington’s legislature what seemed like plenty of time to phase in a remedy—until the 2017-2018 school year, but the supreme court retained jurisdiction in the interim.  Last week the supreme court held the state legislature in contempt for failing to institute a time line that will ensure schools are fully funded by 2018.  The court has now given the legislature an ultimatum: get a remedy well underway by next year.  The Associated Press reports, “The court promised to reconvene and impose sanctions and other remedial measures if lawmakers do not make plans to solve the problem,” by the end of the legislative session in 2015.

Here is how—in the 2012 McCleary decision itself— the state’s supreme court justices interpreted the language of the education clause of Washington’s constitution.  Education spending must be “ample.”  “The word ‘ample’ in article IX, section 1 provides a broad constitutional guideline meaning fully sufficient, and considerably more than just adequate.  Ample funding for basic education must be accomplished by means of dependable and regular tax sources.  The State has not complied with its article IX, section 1 duty to make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.”

The Associated Press reports that the legislature added $1 billion to the school fund in the recent budget, but cost studies that were the basis of the original McCleary decision indicated that the budget needs to be roughly $4 billion annually above the 2012 expenditure level. According to the Education Law Center, “Underfunded educational resources that the Legislature has identified as basic education include full-day kindergarten, more instructional hours for high school students, pupil transportation, a new formula for school staffing levels for smaller class sizes, and more state support for school equipment and supplies.”   Despite the foot dragging, legislators interviewed by the Seattle Times about the court’s recent action to hold the legislature in contempt seem to agree about the need for additional school funding. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee is quoted: “We’ve always been under the assumption we were going to show some substantial remedies this cycle.”

Governor Jay Inslee commented: “I urged lawmakers to act this year and agreed with the court that we must do more to adequately fund education, which I believe is both a constitutional and moral obligation.”